Birmingham celebrated the distinction of having its Civil Rights District named a National Monument.
Several hundred people gathered near the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park on Saturday, April 15 for the official ceremony. We had the honor of meeting Janice Wesley Kelsey, one of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade foot soldiers She was kind enough to share her experience and perspective with us.
What does the dedication of the Civil Rights National Monument mean to you?
To receive this document validates, for the United States, the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. I feel, personally, that participation of the Children’s Crusade was a catalyst for change in America and that we certainly deserve to be recognized for that. Birmingham was once the most segregated city in America and because of the efforts and the sacrifices of the people in this area, many things have changed, have improved and we are proud of our city and the impact that has made in this nation and the world.
How old were you during the Children’s Crusade?
I was sixteen. I wear it as a badge of courage and an honor to be a part of this American history.
Are you still in touch with others who were foot soldiers?
I have some friends who were also involved in the movement, in fact, my brother is one. He and I participate sometimes on panels to talk about our experiences. Just this week, I was in Salt Lake City, Utah, talking to students about my participation in the movement. I’ve been on the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for a few months now and I’m really excited about that. It brings everything full circle. As a teeneager, standing up for something I felt strongly about and now to be in a position to set policy.
Is that satisfying?
Oh God, yes!!
What do you think still needs to be done going forward?
We have a lot to do going forward. I think educating the public is one of the things that we do right here at the institute. And to keep it real and relevant, even in today’s society. As I look around and listen to some of the rhetoric I hear from politicians, I know that this is still a very relevant place. It’s scary how familiar some of these politicians sound.
To me, the messages I received when I was a teenager, I’m hearing some of those some messages. Although they are not in the same words, I get the same message. Going back to make America the way it was? Well, that wasn’t good for me. People need to be educated. History needs to be preserved and presented, and this is a place where that can happen. The park is a place you can touch the monuments that represent what happened and looking at the church you can remember the sacrifices that were made to make this happen. So this is very important and near to my heart.
Who would have even known that fifty-something years later it would still be talked about and remembered? Because at sixteen, I didn’t know it was going to have the impact that it did. These stories have to be told and have to be preserved. That’s why it’s so important to do this, to say out loud, “What we did was okay and it was needed. It was relevant and it’s still relevant.”
The youth need to get involved, stay involved, because we are passing the baton. I’m seventy, as of Tuesday, so I don’t want this to just go away when I go away.